A Balkan sampler: Blueberries and mopeds in Slovenia

Piran a worthy stop on the Balkan coastline

Adriatic sunset in Piran, Slovenia

By Bob Berwyn

The pace of our 10-day European railroad ramble slows dramatically when we reach the Slovenian coast at Koper. Walking toward the taxi stand, we see the locomotive resting against a set of bumpers, facing a blazing Adriatic sunset — literally at the end of the line. After a 15 minute ride along the coast, our driver drops us near Piran harbor, at the northeastern tip of the Istrian peninsula, which juts into the sea like a miniature Sinai.

We had ambitious plans to explore the Dalmatian coastline, but got sidetracked — in the best possible way — by mystery meat in Holland, a 24-hour quest for a mythical Belgian waffle and fanciful ice cream sundaes in Austria.

Moonrise over Piran, Slovenia.
A seaside room at the Hotel Piran offers a view of the full moon rises over the Adriatic in Piran, Slovenia.

So we settle into a spacious corner room in the Hotel Piran, take a deep breath, empty our backpacks and throw open the windows. We won’t make it to Dubrovnik or Split on this trip, but the narrow cobblestone alleys and ancient walls and churches in this town will do just fine as an introduction to this part of the world.

Breakfast is three stories high, on the roof of the hotel, buffet trays piled high with marinated vegetables, fresh yogurt, sausage and cereals. Loading my plate as full as I dare, I top it off with white balls of cheese that threaten to roll off as I navigate toward the table. Plopping some of the cheese onto a wedge of ripe tomato, I watch a few gulls land on the railing, where one of the cooks sets out egg yolks and calls to the birds by name.

Maybe it’s just the setting — scrubby green hills, tile roofs and crumbling Roman walls all set against the deep blue sea — but it’s some of the best cheese I’ve ever tasted.

“You have to try this, Leigh. It’s so soft. It’s perfect with the veggies. This is the best goat cheese ever!” I enthuse.

Heading back to the buffet line for seconds, I envision blond farmers hand-making the cheese with milk from goats that eat nothing but the sweetest grass and native wildflowers high in the Julian Alps.

“What kind of cheese is this?” I ask the cook, pointing at the tray of white balls.

“It’s krem, krima … how do you say … krema cheese,” she answers with a smile.

“Yes, it’s very creamy. Is it made locally, in Piran?” I ask, determined to trace the origins of the delectable treat.

“It’s krema cheese. You know, filla … filli … Philadelphia,” she answers with a triumphant smile.

I can hardly believe it, and when I tell Leigh what I’ve learned  she laughs before taking a taste.

“Everything tastes better when you’re traveling,” she says, as we grab our gear and head out to explore this slice of Slovenian coastline.

The main town square in Piran, Slovenia
Piran's piazza, with a statue honoring composer Giuseppe Tartini.

Muddled past
Turbulent would be the way most historians would describe the region’s past, but muddled is the word that comes to my mind as I scan a few guidebooks to get a sense of the place. Illyrian tribes in the area were conquered by Romans in the 3d century BC. The Romans were attacked by Huns and Visigoths, who, in turn, became subjects of the Byzantine empire, which ruled  until about 751 AD, when Slavic tribes move in. The Slavs established a lasting cultural influence that persisted even after Charlemagne conquered the region in 788. Venice flexed its economic and military muscle in the area beginning in the 12th century or so, when Piran was already an important harbor, as well as a supplier of salt, for Venetian traders.

A few centuries later, most of the Istrian peninsula became part of the Hapsburg Empire, where it remained through the end of World War I. In 1918, Italy claimed the territory, and thousands of Italian settlers flooded the region, strengthening the influences dating back to the days of Venetian rule. Nowadays, Istria is sometimes called the “New Tuscany.” At the end of World War II, Istria became part of Yugoslavia. With the collapse of Communist domination in eastern Europe, Piran and the northernmost reaches of the Istrian peninsula joined the independent Slovenian republic in 1991.


Sunset in Piran, Slovenia
The sun sets over the harbor in Piran, Slovenia. PHOTO BY LEIGH WADDEN.

After all this, you might expect to see a statue of a king, emperor, or at least a sword-wielding soldier on horseback  in the main square. But instead, Piran devotes that place of honor to its favorite son, Baroque composer Giuseppe Tartini, holding a violin and bow. Tartini is best known for the Devil’s Trill Sonata, based on a melody he heard in a dream.

You have to love a town that honors music above politics and military history, we decide, strolling along narrow cobblestone lanes before joining the seaside fun. After days of riding trains and scurrying through terminals to make connections, it feels strange to stop completely. We buy an obnoxious inflatable lobster and spread our towels on the warm cement boardwalk, watching kids lick ice cream cones and practice flips off the jetty.

Piran, Slovenia
The 'beach' in Piran, Slovenia.

There’s not a lifeguard in sight, yet everything goes smoothly, and nobody drowns, as far as we can tell. It’s a welcome change from the over-nannied and hyper-litigious vibe that prevails in many other resort areas,especially back home in the U.S.

On the downside, all the guys are wearing tiny Speedo-style suits, even the big fellow whose belly casts an eclipse-like shadow over us. Not only that, he talks incessantly for at least 45 minutes at his wife, who as near as we can tell, is asleep. But overall the vibe is good, so we float entwined on inflatable our lobster for a while, drifting past medieval facades and towers.

The Vespa Vibe
Near sunset, we look to rent a moped. Our plan is to tour the coastline, maybe even zip into nearby Croatia, just because it’s there, so close and tempting, to add a stamp to our passports. Croatia is scheduled to join the European Union in 2010, eliminating frontier passport checks. After that, Croatian border stamps will be a collector’s item.

We rent our shiny red Vespa at the bar in a harbor pub. Once again, we’re amazed at the laissez-faire attitude. After we plunk down our money, the bartender doesn’t even ask for a driver’s license, passport, or where we might be going. It’s the same when we bring it back the next morning. We drop the keys at the bar and our $100 deposit is returned, no questions asked, no inspection for dings or dents.

Moped riding in Piran, Slovenia.
On the coast highway in Piran, Slovenia.

Neither one of us is a motorbike pro, but handling the little scooter is easy enough.  After running over my foot and bumping into a parked police car – oops – we hit the open highway, headed south past Portoroz, the coastal salt flats and toward the Croatian frontier. The border guards are mildly amused when we putt-putt to a stop, waving our passports and asking for the stamp. It’s a big deal to us; at the current rate of European integration, border crossings (and European passport stamps) will soon be obsolete.

Good or bad? The jury is still out, but a common currency certainly is easier for travelers. And there’s been a huge economic balancing in Europe during the past 10 years. Capital flows from rich to poor countries, while labor migrates in the other direction. European integration has enabled massive public investment in the infrastructure of poor countries. That, in turn, encourages individuals from the wealthier countries to invest private fortunes in real estate, tourism and development schemes.

Workers and entrepreneurs are free to live and work in any of the 27 member countries, and the EU as a political entity has become the single biggest donor of aid to developing countries. The progressive constitutional framework holding the union together also requires equal pay for equal work, mandating gender equality in the job market.

That’s not to say it’s all peaches and cream. Some of the socially conservative countries are chafing at the influx of foreigners. Right-wing parties in Austria made significant gains in national elections this fall, based in part on a deep-rooted xenophobic streak. And some of the countries that have benefitted the most from EU investment, citizens voted against expansion of the union, denying other countries the same opportunities they’ve enjoyed.

However, the internationalist policies of the EU have been widely accepted around the continent. One of the biggest fears was that political unity would lead to cultural homogenization. So far, it appears the opposite holds true. An umbrella of collective economic security has actually stimulated a flowering of local and regional culture. In Southern France, for example, a renaissance of Provencal regionalism isn’t seen as a threat to the political integrity of France any longer, but as an enhancement to the country’s cultural heritage.

But, politics is not foremost on our minds as we zoom back into Slovenia. Hungry and sunburned, we head for Restaurant Pavel, a first-rate seafood joint right next to our hotel. David, the waiter, greets us like long-lost friends, presenting a bottle of Slovenian wine along with an appetizer of local truffles and eggs. For the second night in a row, we enjoy a magnificent seafood feast, sitting at our patio table to savor the last drops of wine in the satin night.

Fishing in Piran, Slovenia.
A pair of local kids fishing off the boardwalk in Piran, Slovenia. PHOTO BY LEIGH WADDEN.

“It must be expensive for you to travel here,” David says, acknowledging the lousy exchange rate. At several stops along the way, European merchants have acknowledged that they miss American tourists, whose numbers have dwindled dramatically in the face of over-blown terrorism fears and unfavorable currency values. He seems reluctant to accept a tip, and just before we leave, he comes back out of the kitchen with a small parting gift — two shots of blueberry brandy and a small bag of sea salt from the nearby salt ponds.


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